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Celebrate Repeal Day By Learning About California's Wine History

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Like Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, and the Opening of Buck Season in Pennsylvania, December 5, aka Repeal Day should be one of our nation's great holidays. After all, the demise of the 18th Amendment, also known as the Volstead Act, also known as Prohibition, brought an end to 13 (sort of) dry years for our country. Alas, what Prohibition wreaked on California's wine industry reverberated for at least 40 more years (that the era fell between WWI and WWII, and so many fell then, too, of course didn't help matters). But here's one fact that will prove it took decades for an industry to recover from Prohibition: it wasn't until 1967 when table wine finally surpassed dessert wine in volume sales in the U.S.

That's not to say clever Californians didn't figure out ways to circumvent the law in almost legal ways from 1920-1933. Most of California's 713 Pre-Prohibition wineries shut down, but a bunch stayed in business making sacramental wine, and if nothing else, Prohibition made many grow even closer to god, based on the rise in such wine consumption. In addition to producers like Beringer Winery and Louis M. Martini in Napa, southern California producers like San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles and the Bernardo Winery in San Diego skirted the laws on religious robes. The impetus for Prohibition itself has a fascinating religious component, with the hard Protestants for it, and Catholics the "lite" Protestants against it. But that will lead into a whole 'nother rabbit hole of nativism and class and arguments we still make today about entirely different things than drink.

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Then there was the business in grape bricks that practically clogged the nation's railways. Indeed, vineyards' growth took off with the beginning of Prohibition, as one of the law's loopholes said people could make up to 200 gallons of wine for personal consumption. (That amount would fill a 72.5" x 24.5" x 27.5" aquarium, if you were wondering. It would kill the fish, too.) Thirsty Americans quickly learned to mail order grape bricks from California, items that kindly gave detailed instructions on what NOT to do to make the grapes ferment. This did wonders for creating home winemakers, lowering people's standards, and for destroying some of our best grapes. Remember Miles' speech about the delicate pinot noir grape in Sideways? Well, you're not shipping those tender grapes cross country in a box. But alicante bouschet, that was tough and easily brickable. Lots of vines of finer things we wish we were drinking now got ripped out then. Thanks, Prohibitionists!

Along with those bricks going east, at least one crucial player came west, though. Cesare Mondavi led an expedition from his Italian winemaking group in Minnesota and stayed, along with his son and eventually empire-grower, Robert. The Mondavis, along with the Gallos and others all helped start to revive a more serious California wine industry that currently, according to the California Wine Institute, attracts more than 20 million visitors annually to its wineries, while California/U.S. wine exports have increased more than five-fold in the past 15 years.

Of course, we're still dealing with repercussions from Prohibition, such as the legally proscribed three-tier system of producers-distributors-retailers that does consumers no favors (gee, the more layers, the harder things are to find and the more the price goes up?). But at least this December 5 we don't have to get on our party line phone and order a "black chicken" from Aldo Biale (father of Robert Biale) to get our bottle of zinfandel as we once did. And that there are 100 year old zin vines in California even with the 18th Amendment is something to which we all should toast.

 

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